TV and the assassination

Fifty years ago today, the world stopped, so to speak, to numbly stare at their TVs and the coverage therein of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

I find most interesting (if you couldn’t figure that out yesterday) is how the three TV network news operations covered the assassination — an event the likes of which TV news had never covered before then.

Andrew Cohen first watched coverage of the assassination 25 years ago:

On that 25th anniversary, many of the major journalists and dramatis personae on the scene in Dallas (or New York or Washington) on November 22, 1963, were still alive. Walker Cronkite was still around. So were David Brinkley and Tom Wicker. So were Theodore Sorenson and Pierre Salinger and David Powers. And so, for that matter, were Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. and Teddy Kennedy and even Rose Kennedy, the slain president’s mother.

This year, it’s different. Those icons now are gone, as are a hundred million or so ordinary Americans who endured those sad days. And in their place have come another hundred million or so other Americans for whom the Kennedy assassination is a snippet on a film or a paragraph in a textbook or a murder mystery. Fifty years from now, we’ll still mark the occasion, only it will be something like this: “Last Surviving Witness to Kennedy Assassination…” The river of history thus ever flows.

All of which is why it is increasingly important—if you care about journalism or history or politics, or if you simply care about the way in which human beings react to great tragedy in their midst—to watch the “as it happened” videos of the assassination and its aftermath. Taken together, this footage is invaluable not just as an affirmation of fact and evidence (and myth and mistake) but as the single most vivid totem of a time most of us living today never knew and never will. …

The rest of the news coverage that day has probably been scrutinized over the past half century more closely than any single event in history—or in the history of news. Most things the reporters got right. Some things they didn’t. Some bordered on the hysterical. Some were stoic. Some kept referring back to the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, although even in November 1963, the comparison was inapt. But most just did what we expect journalists to do—which is to ask questions, and try to get answers, and then share what they have learned.

But if you watch the original footage this week, let go of the urge to make technical or editorial judgments about how precisely the assassination was covered and how such coverage might be different today. Resist the temptation to flare at the flaws you see. Forget the J-school analysis. Just try to absorb, as a human being, the pain and the grief and the shock that is coming at you. And remember, if you can, that these recorded hours are a precious chronicle of a nation in the middle of a crisis. …

But mostly that afternoon you see men (and they are mostly men) trying to do their jobs in extraordinary conditions. You see some journalists (like [Frank] McGee) handling it better than others (like Chet Huntley). You see the faux wood paneling of the NBC News set. You see the CBS Newsmen in shirt sleeves behind [Walter] Cronkite. You see, in other words, the raw product of a medium changing before your very eyes, in the span of just a few hours. It was like that on September 11, 2001, of course. And it will be like that on the next horrible day that America endures.

It’s impossible to get the sense of the shock of November 22, 1963, unless you take the time to watch the many hours of coverage. Because even though the drama is long gone for all of us today, even though we all know how the story ends, there is something inherently dramatic about watching other people, including famous people (like Cronkite and [David] Brinkley), absorb right in front of us the enormity of what was happening to them and to their country. Brinkley, in particular, seethes with fury at the senselessness of the violence. Cronkite, tears held back or no, looks and sounds just shattered. Just three months earlier, he had interviewed this president about Vietnam.

3 thoughts on “TV and the assassination

  1. Well written. It was inconceivable, even at the age of 11 to watch this horrific murder unfold on national television not just once, but three times. As I watched the footage yesterday, it grieves me that we are raising a generation that are exposed to violence thousands of times on any given media. It hurts to see some of the awful legislation being railroaded into law today. John F. Kennedy rarely opened his mouth without saying a gem of wisdom that needed to be written down. He was a good man despite his many flaws.

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